In 1953 my father bought us a television set, a Hoffman black and white with a twelve or thirteen inch screen. I was six then and we had just moved into a new ranch style house with mud where the grass would eventually grow. My older brother, three years my senior, would turn on the set early Sunday mornings before church so we could watch ‘Hoppy’ catch the bad guys. We grew up with Hop Along Cassidy and Gene Autrey, the old movie theater serials that became weekly television fare. It wasn’t until 1955 that I paid more attention to television for by that time Walt Disney and his evening hour long show became a family ritual. And I didn’t know anyone at school who didn’t watch ‘The Mickey Mouse Show’. Mom wouldn’t but me the ears or Davy Crocket’s coonskin cap, so as I child I was very deprived when I compared my life to that of the other kids.
But ‘Spin and Marty’ opened up the world of ranching and the wild west, so to speak. We watched ‘Wagon Train’ and a few other westerns, the Disney westerns when they appeared, and how could I forget the two most important films in my young life? “Old Yeller” was that water shed moment about the death of a beloved pet and having to be the one to put him down. We didn’t have a dog but I could empathies with that final scene. Then came “Westward Ho the Wagons”, 1956 and the we all wanted to be cowboys or at least head west on a wagon train. The closest I even came to ‘western life’ were the summers Nelson and I spent on my aunt’s farm in Texas. They raised Herford cattle and a host of other failed business ventures. Aunt Ruby and Uncle Les tried to combine cattle with raising turkeys, ducks and geese, laying chickens (I remember gathering eggs and then having to wash them), and hogs. But there were never any horses, not even close by. Now how can a boy grow up to be a cowboy if there’s no horses?
Unlike our suburban neighborhood where mowing the grass and pulling weeds were the chores expected to be done, the Texas State Fair at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas was the closest we would come to seeing horses and some rodeo events. I never heard of there being a local chapter of the FFA (Future Farmers of America) even though we lived a few miles from Cowtown, Fort Worth that is. Since then I have been to a couple of small rodeos as an adult so that is the sum total of experiences being close to cowboy life. By 1961 we had moved to the Philadelphia area and talking about such subjects made you a country bumkin. True, you learn something about outdoor life as a scout and an explorer but somehow that’s just not the same.
Ed Bruce captured the feelings many of my generation had when he said, “I can’t remember not wondering what it was like to be a cowboy.” “This is the last cowboy song, end of a hundred year waltz. Voices sound sad as they’re singing along, another piece of America’s lost.” America’s long haul truckers became the last cowboys in a way, they mirror many parts of that past life and now the future is uncertain, they too may be the last of their breed. I should know, I was one of them for a number of years. There are doubts that we will be eulogized in the same manner. The code of the west gave way to the code of the road and I don’t think another code awaits in the future shadows of history.